The war in Iraq must feel familiar to President Bush, and not just because he is overseeing a campaign against his father's nemesis, Saddam Hussein. The war is a classic George W. Bush operation.
To begin with, the plan defied conventional wisdom in favor of an aggressive early burst designed to intimidate his opponents. Add to that the relentlessly repeated message of inevitability. Long before the decisive battles were fought, Bush and his spokesmen began insisting they would win -- and they kept saying it even when things looked shaky.
And when chest-thumping and the initial display of power failed to break the foe, Bush, in his trademark way, stuck to his blueprint, seemingly free of self-doubt, and counted on his troops to pull through.
This is how he ran his presidential campaign, and how he ran the postelection recount. It's how he has approached key legislative battles, including his signature tax cuts. Washington insiders can argue over whether the war plan was shaped more by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or by the commander of the invasion, Gen. Tommy R. Franks. But no matter who wrote the plan, its appeal to the commander in chief is obvious.
In spirit, this is the president's war.
"Like his campaigns, this has been a product of order, focus, having a plan and sticking to it and never blinking," said a longtime supporter.
When Bush ordered an improvised attack on Hussein's bunker last month in hopes of ending the war before it began, he was working a strategic vein he has preferred at least since his first run for Texas governor in 1994. In that race, Bush dealt with the question of winning the Republican nomination by cajoling and squeezing the other potential candidates into skipping the race. It was "the shortest primary in Texas history," one Bush biographer wrote, and instantly gave him stature to challenge Gov. Ann Richards (D).
But that was nothing compared to his entry into the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. In the late winter and early spring of 1999, Bush began hosting GOP leaders from around the country in Austin, where he began piling up endorsements. Then, in a political version of shock and awe, he leveraged this support into an unprecedented money advantage over his best-known opponents.
More than half a year before the first vote, in early summer 1999, Bush announced that he had $37 million in the bank -- a staggering number, as much as most candidates might raise in an entire campaign. Three months later, he cracked $52 million. His best-known rivals began raising the white flag.
"I don't think I can explain how things are what they are," a dazed Lamar Alexander said at the time. Alexander, who is now a senator from Tennessee, was a seasoned campaigner and skilled fundraiser, but the Bush blitz forced him from the race before the first primary. Another recently elected senator, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, also surrendered, as did former vice president Dan Quayle.
"It's a little reminiscent of the sort of thing you see on the Discovery Channel, where the animals make displays to intimidate or awe their adversaries. A sort of ritualistic shaking of the antlers," said Princeton University's Fred I. Greenstein, an authority on the presidency.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) mounted an insurgent campaign on a shoestring, and surprised Bush with a whipping in the New Hampshire primary. Like the Fedayeen harassing coalition troops in southern Iraq, McCain rattled the sense of invincibility that Bush had worked to create. The reaction in Washington was similar in each case: Nervousness, second-guessing and calls for new personnel and new plans.
Bush's reaction was also the same. He stuck with his plan and his people.
"I think he learned a lot from watching his father," said one loyal supporter of both Bush presidents. "His father got to be president by never taking any chances. George W. got to be president by taking some pretty bold chances. He also learned that anguishing doesn't pay. He doesn't let his own inner core be supplanted by the hand-wringing of policy wonks."
That's the assessment of a friend. Bush critics view the president's stony determination differently -- as a sign of insufficient agility or imagination. Either way, it is a defining quality of his leadership style. In a culture that extols instant analysis, high-speed change and constant pulse-taking, Bush tends to make a decision only once. He doesn't anguish afterward. He doesn't really anguish much to begin with.
Washington lobbyist Ed Rogers, a veteran of two GOP administrations, believes this is the key to the administration's public unity and its ability to stick to one message, even under pressure and even when senior members of the Cabinet disagree, as Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reportedly have on aspects of Iraq policy.
"When the president is viewed as anguishing after the fact, that's what breeds infighting in an administration," Rogers said. "One team tries to blame the other team because you think there is a chance to change the president's mind."
Bush played a variation on these themes at the end of the 2000 campaign. In public and in private he projected serene confidence in the last week before the voting. "I'll be the most surprised man in America if I don't win," he told one friend. But on Election Day, Vice President Al Gore made a much stronger showing than Bush expected, winning the popular vote and holding Bush to a virtual tie in Florida, where Bush's forces had claimed supremacy.
The Bush recount effort was marked by a relentless message of inevitable victory. And through shifting events and public opinion swings, Bush stuck doggedly to the strategy his advisers recommended in the first hours of the crisis. His legislative approach to tax cuts -- his defining domestic initiative -- has been another variation.
Though his electoral victory was paper thin, and the Republican hold on Congress even thinner, Bush rejected conventional wisdom that he should proceed cautiously and instead proposed a $1.6 trillion tax cut. Bush won most of what he asked for, to be phased in over 10 years.
But true to the pattern, Bush's juggernaut ran into trouble. A sagging economy dried up the federal budget surplus, while federal spending spiked. Delivering the tax cut suddenly implied years of deep deficits, and many in Washington pressed Bush to rethink his plans.
Instead, he asked for an additional $726 billion in cuts.
Presidential advisers have come to believe that voters like the qualities Bush displays in these key moments. What his critics see as bluster, voters see as straight talk, they theorize. What sounds to his foes like rote repetition strikes voters as consistency and clarity, Bush advisers say. And what is doctrinaire or inflexible in the eyes of Bush opponents is perceived by most voters as steadfastness, they maintain.
Greenstein said he doubted that Bush has consciously chosen this pattern. "I don't think he has a sort of rigorous, tightly joined set of assumptions about how to operate," he said. "It is a sort of standard bargaining ploy to take a tough position and seem intractable and maybe you unexpectedly get what you want."
The chesty, stick-to-your-guns style may come at a price, Greenstein added. It plays better with conservative American audiences than it plays abroad, and that could have long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy. The Bush style has given America some harrowing moments, but so far, it has worked out well for him. "Events play into his hands," one congressional Republican summed up. "There is a period of inflated expectations . . . then the chattering classes say everything is wrong. When there's a turnaround, Bush cashes in all his chips and is even stronger."